[15 June 2009]
Like the freak accidents that stripped the world of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding at crucial points in their artistic growth, Jeff Buckley’s Memphis drowning almost exactly 12 years ago feels unfair in an eerily depressing way. Like Cooke and Redding before him, Buckley exhibited such a transcendent level of talent during his brief recording career. Listening to his music now, one’s mind fills with thoughts of how improbably and suddenly his life ended and overwhelms in a devastating way that can be rivaled by very few works of art in history.
In 2009, to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of Buckley’s only official studio album, 1994’s near-masterpiece Grace, Sony Legacy Recordings chose to release the live DVD/CD collection, Grace Around the World. It compiles live performances filmed from various locations along Buckley’s 1994-1995 world tour to promote his latest release. Each original Grace track is accounted for in the live performances used on Grace Around the World, with the exception of “Corpus Christi Carol”, which has been supplanted by the more-frequently performed “What Will You Say”. The ten performances, including the main feature of the DVD, are interspersed with interview footage of Buckley discussing topics usually pertaining to the songs in the sequence they appear. Bonus DVD features include extra performances of the songs “Grace”, “So Real” and “Last Goodbye”, as well as an instrumental version of “Vancouver” (which appeared, with lyrics, on the posthumous Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk), a VH1 “Star Tours” featurette and a 1995 bus interview with Merri Cyr.
The CD portion of Grace Around the World contains all ten live recordings from the main program, as well as the additional versions of “Grace” and “So Real”. For recordings not originally intended to be released in such a format, the sound quality of GATW holds up surprisingly well, even as a stand-alone live disc.
Perhaps the greatest addition to Grace Around the World is the inclusion of the documentary, Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley, as a bonus DVD in the deluxe version of the collection. Buckley fans have been clamoring for this film’s release since it screened at 25 film festivals and won several awards a few years ago, so it is great to see an official pressing, though it does deserve better billing than as a bonus addition to another collection. The film focuses primarily on the transcendent beauty of Buckley’s music. Interviews with friends, family, band members, musical contemporaries, artists and admirers provide great insight into what made this guy special. These interviews coupled with a good amount of archival footage of Buckley himself, either singing or talking, make Amazing Grace a great starting point for anyone interested in discovering the music of one of the most-talented and intriguing performers to ever sign a record contract.
Grace Around the World was produced by Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s mother, whose motives have been questioned upon previous posthumous releases of her son’s music (most notable was her decision to add “Forget Her”, the famous Grace outtake, which Jeff himself chose not to release due to its personal nature, to the deluxe edition of the album in 2004). While she will undoubtedly continue to profit off of her son’s legacy, Guibert, in both her liner notes for this collection as well as her Amazing Grace interviews, is as much a fan of Jeff Buckley, the musician, as any member of his rabid fanbase. Because of his all-too-short recording career, as well as the exceptional quality of just about every verse he ever sang, no one should have any problems with the relatively large amount of posthumous material released in Buckley’s name.
Jeff Buckley could arguably be considered the greatest male vocalist in pop-music history, at least in terms of raw talent and emotional power. What makes the live performances of Grace Around the World so worthwhile is the fact he never sang any one song the same way twice. (An entire album of different Buckley interpretations of “Hallelujah” would undoubtedly be worthwhile.) This was a man who could cover a song and, in turn, create a definitive version, as well as perform his own compositions so perfectly as to render them untouchable by any other artist. To hear him sing the line, “She’s a tear that hangs inside my soul forever” from “Lover You Should Have Come Over” should elicit chills with each iteration.
A commentator toward the end of Amazing Grace, somewhat controversially, expresses a point of view that Buckley’s early demise may have been a blessing of sorts. It is a valid point—which should in no way be interpreted as someone claiming that Jeff’s death was a good thing—because no one will ever know the quality of music Jeff would have made had he lived longer just like no one knows how satisfyingly Sam Cooke would have followed up a masterpiece like “A Change is Gonna Come” or what Otis would have done after “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”. Still, if we were to put Jeff Buckley’s death into the context of divine implications, it’s hard to view it as anything but a cruel joke.